Women During the Revolutionary War

By Awet Amedechiel

The majority of colonial women made small, but vital contributions to the Revolutionary War effort. Betsy Ross' mythical creation of the first flag of the United States is the most famous female achievement of the Revolutionary era, but it is only one example of the many stories of women making a difference during and after the war. The success of the boycott of British goods in the 1760's and early 1770's was acknowledged to have depended largely on the dedication of American women and their willingness to alter their patterns of consumption. Many women made products at home, especially clothing, thus facilitating the boycott without overstepping the bounds of the domestic sphere. Other women tried to impact the struggle for independence and the development of principles for the new nation through their husbands. Abigail Adams corresponded frequently with her husband, once cautioning him to "remember the ladies" at the Continental Congress of 1776. Although the social mores of the time did not easily permit female participation in the Revolutionary war, many women managed to take more direct action in support of the patriotic cause. In October of 1774, 51 women from the Society of Patriotic Ladies at Edenton, North Carolina, signed a statement declaring their commitment to the patriot cause and their intention to do so all in their power to further that cause. In Philadelphia, Esther Berdt Reed organized the fundraising, purchase of materials, and production of shirts for the American Continental Army. She and the women with whom she worked raised $7,500 in a few weeks, a huge amount at that time. When Reed died in a dysentery epidemic, several other women, including Benjamin Franklin's daughter, Sarah Franklin Bache, continued her work.


Some women even participated in the military side of the war. Many women found themselves in the position of having to defend their homes and families from attacks by British and Native American troops. American artist Patience Lovell Wright smuggled secret information to American forces in Philadelphia, concealed in her wax figures. Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler, wife of Revolutionary War General Philip Schuyler, burned the wheat fields around Albany, NY, in order to prevent British forces from harvesting them. Her action inspired others similar acts of resistance. Mary Ludwid Hays, was nicknamed "Molly Pitcher" because she carried water to American soldiers during the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. She even operated her husband's cannon when he fell in battle. Hays was made a sargeant by General Washington and, after the war, received a pension and was buried with full military honors. Betty Zane saved a fort that was under siege by Native Americans during one of the final Native American attacks of the Revolutionary War. She carried gunpowder to replenish the depleted supply of the colonial forces. According to an anonymous journal entry, on August 17, 1775 in East Hartford, Connecticut, a "corps of female infantry," twenty women in all, marched "in martial array and excellent order" to a store. They proceeded to attack and plunder the shop, taking two hundred and eighteen pounds of sugar with them. It is not clear whether this incident actually occurred, but it is well-documented that Deborah Sampson dressed as a man and enlist in the Continental forces in 1782. She served with distinction for a year and a half, and earned a monthly disability pension after the war. Margaret Cochran Corbin also fought and was seriously wounded in the war, and received a pension from the state of Pennsylvania.


Women were also involved in the chronicling of the war. In 1777, Mary Katherine Goddard printed the first official copy of the Declaration of Independence, and paid the post riders to carry it throughout the colonies. Lady Christian Henrietta Caroline Acland, also called Lady Harriet, wrote a narrative of her experiences traveling from England to the American colonies, which was hailed as "one of the brightest episodes in the war." One of the earliest historians of the war was Mercy Otis Warren, whose three-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution was published in 1805.



During initial stages of settlement, the need for labor in the Americas exceeded gender discrimination, and women were able to acquire jobs outside the home, even physically taxing jobs. This was especially true in frontier communities. One example is Susanna Wright, who, in 1771, was acting as legal counselor, unofficial magistrate, and local physician for her neighbors on the frontiers of Pennsylvania.

This social and economic equality resulted from survival necessity, however, and did not indicate any fundamental shifts in social philosophy. The American colonies adhered to the concept of couverture, derived from English common law, according to which married women were considered one with their husbands, and "the very being or legal existence of the woman [was] suspended" after marriage. After independence, these gender inequities were not significantly addressed. Nevertheless, some progress was made. Massachusetts legislation from 1787 led to the granting of property rights to women by allowing women who had been abandoned by their husbands to sell property. One year later, women gained the right to be elected to office in the United States, although only in New Jersey were women allowed to vote, and that too was outlawed by 1806. For African-American women, the Revolutionary War made little impact on their lives. They continued to be slaves in every state, except for Massachusetts, which moved toward emancipation in the 1780's. Many continued to be abused by their mistresses, raped by their masters, and put down by their male coworkers. No rights of citizenship were extended to African-American women, and any successes they achieved was only permitted within a circumscribed area. One example of such sheltered success was Phillis Wheatley, a celebrated African-American poet. Abolitionists used her as an example proving that Africans were not congenitally intellectually inferior. Nevertheless, although she was a firm supporter of independence for the colonies, she was not a proponent of emancipation for slaves. In fact, her poetry expressed thankfulness that she had been delivered from the "darkness" of Africa to the "light" of America.

Native American women faced different social circumstances, depending on the social organization of their tribe. In many tribes, Native American women lived in patterns of sexual segregation. In some New England tribes, for example, women and men ate separately. Tribes as the Ute and Shoshone in the Great Basin region gave women very low social status. In addition, "women's work," usually including domestic and agricultural labor, was generally seperated from "men's work," usually warrior and hunting duties. In other tribes, however, Native American women had more access to positions of power than did their European counterparts. Some tribes, such as the Iroquois of northern New York and the Pueblos of the Southwest, were matrilineal, determining kinship through maternal lines. Such societies allowed women, such as Mary (Konwatsi'tsiaienni) Brant, to obtain status as important political figures. The Cherokee nation had a Women's Council, led by women such as Nancy (Nanye'hi) Ward. Ward also sat as a member of the Council of Chiefs, and took her husband's place in battle when he fell during confrontation between the Creeks and the Cherokees in 1776. In addition to political positions, squaws had authority in the religious sphere, sometimes assuming roles as shamans or priests, which allowed them to practice medicine. In some cases, women acted as both shamans and warleaders. Some women even engaged in trade. Nevertheless, although women were able to hold positions with varying levels of authority within their tribes and clans, most Native American cultures remained heavily male-dominated. Since the vast majority of Native Americans sided with the British, many of the Native American heroes and heroines were individuals who would not have been acclaimed by the patriot Americans. Mohawk leader Mary Brant, for example, was known for having used her considerable influence among Native Americans to keep them loyal to the British. The Revolutionary War probably affected Native American women more through the disruptions of daily life it caused than through any liberal concept which the patriotic struggle may have espoused. In any case, the ideals of a "republican woman" were probably not intended to apply to non-European women, so that the political and social developments which may have arisen from American independence were largely irrelevant to Native Americans. In fact, many tribes might have been better off if Great Britain had won the war, since the British had much more genial relations with most tribes than did the colonial settlers.


Unlike many of their European counterparts, European women in the new republic were expected to know how to cook and efficiently run a household, as well as be able to engage her husband in serious discourse. However, the education available to most women was insufficient to properly facilitate the fulfillment of such demanding roles. Few families educated their daughters beyond the elementary level, and almost no women attended college. Eventually, schools which accepted women or were designed for women were founded in the new nation. "Adventure schools," generally located in the homes of the instructors, were founded in various locations in the colonies. These school emphasized instruction in music, dancing, drawing, painting, needlework, etc., with little attention paid to reading, writing, or mathematics. One of the most well-known adventure schools was founded in Philadelphia in 1754 by Anthony Benezet. In the south, daughters of well-to-do families were taught by tutors. Other, more academically or practically oriented schools included the Moravian Young Ladies Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, opened to non-Moravian girls in 1785, and Sarah Pierce's school in Litchfield, Connecticut in 1792. Such schools trained young women in reading, grammar, geography, history, music, arithmetic, and sometimes astronomy and foreign languages. Schools such as the Katy Ferguson School for the Poor, founded and named after a former slave, dealt with the more urgent need for basic literacy among the poor. The Ferguson School recruited students from the poorhouses on New York, and began in 1793 with 28 black and 20 white students. After the war, several New England academies began to accept women and to allow them to study the same subjects as men, although schools such as Yale University still refused to accept even fully-qualified female students.

Women such as Mary Wollstonecraft in England and Judith Sargent Murray wrote in defense of women's rights. Although most American women might not have publicly approved of Wollstonecraft's views, such as a criticism of marriage, her 1792 book, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which went through several editions in the United States. Men like Thomas Paine and, later, John Quincy Adams, spoke out in support of women's political and social rights. The bulk of women's writings which survive today seem to suggest that most were less concerned about political equality than about the acknowledgment of the importance and value of the private domestic sphere, which they judged to be equal to the public political sphere. According to Abigail Adams, "if man is Lord, woman is Lordess - that is what I contend for." Most of these writings are from Protestant European middle and upper class women, making it difficult to gage the sentiments of other women of the Revolutionary Era.


While most women of the Revolutionary Era might not be classed as "feminists" in the modern sense, they were among the first to seriously examine the role of women in American society. This, together with their active role in the war itself, laid the groundwork for much of the feminist thought and protest that would occur in the next generation with the dawn of the movement for women's suffrage.